A documentary on the life of (Jewish) writer Saul Bellow

JTA — Given his place in the international literary elite, it’s hard to believe that no documentary has yet been made about Jewish Nobel Prize winner Saul Bellow.

It is now ancient history since the broadcast, last week on PBS, of “American Masters: The Adventures of Saul Bellow”.

This documentary by Israeli director Asaf Galay, shot between 2016 and 2019, which additionally features what is believed to be Philip Roth’s very last interview before his death in 2018, digs deep into Bellow’s personal life and sources of inspiration. .

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Many are familiar with his bestselling novels and memorable (usually Jewish) characters, but as the documentary shows, Bellow had a rocky personal life, with five marriages. Some of his friends and family felt betrayed or hurt by his way of portraying unflattering characters based on their own story.

His moderate conservative political leanings made him an author at odds with the spirit of the 1960s, and some view his evocation of African-American characters as racist.

The documentary dwells at length – through interviews with scholars, novelists and members of the Bellow clan – on the deep sense of otherness that animated Bellow, son of Jewish immigrants, and how it influenced his work, and how, in turn, it influenced many American Jewish writers. Roth, for example, confides to the camera that Bellow inspired him to create more complete Jewish characters.

To pay tribute to the release of this documentary, we have gone through the archives of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency looking for information about Saul Bellow. What emerges is a portrait of a leading Jewish intellectual, deeply invested in the Soviet Jewish movement and Israel, and loved by the American Jewish community despite his complex relationship to his Jewishness and his refusal to be called a “Jewish writer”. “.

The Soviet Jewish Movement

Bellow was born in 1915, in Canada, to parents of Lithuanian ancestry who immigrated from St. Petersburg, Russia. In the 1920s, Bellow was 9 years old when his family moved to Chicago.

In the 1950s, the plight of the Jews of the Soviet Union – prevented from practicing their religion freely and from emigrating – became the rallying cry of American Jews.

As a 1958 JTA report illustrates, Bellow was passionate about the issue. In January of this year, he sent an open letter to the New York Times about “the purge of Yiddish writers, the current Soviet regime’s refusal to allow the revival of Jewish culture, and the existence of a quota system for Jews in education and public service, among other areas “. Jewish writers Irving Howe, Alfred Kazin and Lionel Trilling are also signatories to this letter.

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Saul Bellow speaks in 1976. (AP Photo)

He signs another letter Times on the same subject in 1965, and in 1969 he circulated an appeal for Jewish cultural freedom to the Union of Soviet Writers, which collected the signatures of eminent writers such as Noam Chomsky and Nat Hentoff.

In 1970, the subject touched the general public and Bellow remained very involved: with several other opinion leaders, he signed a petition “Does the Soviet Union care about human rights or the opinion of the rest of humanity? »

Like many American Jews, Bellow’s position on Israel is complex. “To be appreciated by everyone, it is better not to mention Israeli politics,” he once wrote.

In the 1970s, JTA articles show that he closely followed Israeli diplomacy and supported the Jewish state in the face of international criticism.

In 1974, during a press conference, he called for a boycott of UNESCO, the United Nations agency responsible for cultural heritage, which is very critical of Israeli policy.

In 1984, Bellow met then-Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres on a state visit to the United States.

However, Bellow did not blindly support Israel: in 1979, he signed a letter of protest against the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, which was read during a demonstration followed by 30,000 people in Tel Aviv.

In 1987, while in Haifa for a conference devoted to his work, he criticized the Israeli government for its handling of the spy case around Jonathan Pollardraising a still lively question in the dialogue between Israel and its diaspora, as in American politics.

“I think American Jews are very sensitive to this issue of dual loyalties, and it’s probably a mistake on Israel’s part to insist on this issue, very often taken up by anti-Semites,” Bellow said.

Nobel prize

After winning several National Book Awards and a Pulitzer, Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1976. The JTA article dedicated to this news recalls that Bellow’s latest book, published at the time of the announcement of the prize , is dedicated to his stay in Jerusalem in 1975, entitled “Return from Jerusalem”.

The article states: “Two of his books, ‘Herzog’, published in 1964 and ‘The Planet of Mr. Sammler’, which won him the National Book Award in 1971, have been translated into Hebrew and acclaimed by Israeli critics. and readers. »

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Novelist Saul Bellow smiles as he walks on the University of Chicago campus, Oct. 22, 1976, after hearing news of his Nobel Prize in Literature. (Credit: AP Photo/Charles Knoblock)

(Bellow was not the only Jew to win a Nobel Prize that year, as Milton Friedman won the economics prize, Baruch Blumberg the medicine prize, and Burton Richter the physics prize.)

A “Jewish writer”?

The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) presented an award to Bellow in 1976.

According to a JTA article, Seymour Graubard, honorary national president of the ADL at the time, declared that Bellow “consistently refuses to be called a ‘Jewish writer.’ He finds in his Jewishness the foundations of the humanity that are part of us all: therein lies his greatness as an American writer. »

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Saul Bellow, Anita Goshkin (his first wife) and their son Gregory Bellow, circa 1940. Bellow’s turbulent personal life resulted in five marriages. (Courtesy of the Bellow family via JTA)

The question of whether or not Bellow should be called a “Jewish writer”, and what that means, haunts him for much of his career.

When he died in 2005, at the age of 89, an obituary of New York Jewish Week evokes “a giant of literature who has always refused to be called a Jewish writer”.

“For Mr. Bellow, being considered a Jewish writer was somewhat restrictive, even though his very first novels, notably ‘The Victim’, in 1944, dealt with anti-Semitism and featured characters who spoke Yiddish and Russian writes Steve Lipman.

Bellow’s biographer, James Atlas, adds in the obituary: “He always said he was first and foremost a writer, American and then Jewish. It is these three facets of his personality that explain his genius. His greatest achievement has been writing fiction with great philosophical depth. »

In a piece published by JTA at the time of Bellow’s death, scholar and fiction writer John J. Clayton writes, “No good writer wishes to be pigeonholed or limited in scope. Bellow is deeply a Jewish writer, and not just by birth. »

“Jewish culture, Jewish sensibility, the Jewish sense of the sanctity of everyday life, all of this greatly permeates his work. »

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A documentary on the life of (Jewish) writer Saul Bellow